John Sullivan (writer)

For other men with this name, see John Sullivan (disambiguation).
John Sullivan

Sullivan in 2010.
Born John Richard Thomas Sullivan
(1946-12-23)23 December 1946[1]
Balham, South London, England[1]
Died 23 April 2011(2011-04-23) (aged 64)
Surrey, England
Occupation Screenwriter
Period 1977–2011
Notable works
Spouse Sharon Sullivan (m. ?–2011) (his death)
Children 3

John Richard Thomas Sullivan OBE (23 December 1946 – 23 April 2011) was an English television scriptwriter responsible for several British sitcoms, including Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith and Just Good Friends.

From working-class South London, Sullivan worked in a variety of low-paid jobs for 15 years before getting his first break writing Citizen Smith. However, it was the sitcom Only Fools and Horses (1981–2003) that he is best known for. Other sitcoms include Dear John, Just Good Friends, Sitting Pretty, Roger Roger, and The Green Green Grass.[1] In addition, he wrote the comedy drama serial Over Here and the drama series Micawber for ITV, and co-wrote the comedy Heartburn Hotel. His work won him a number of comedy awards, including the BAFTA for best sitcom on three occasions, and he was made an OBE in 2005. His last work was Rock & Chips, a comedy drama prequel to Only Fools and Horses. The final episode of Sullivan's last comedy series aired five days after his death from pneumonia on 23 April 2011.[2]

To remember Sullivan's work, the BBC broadcast "A Touch of Glass", the episode of Only Fools and Horses in which the Trotters drop a chandelier while cleaning it for an upper-class family. They also showed "Top 40 Only Fools and Horses Moments", where it is shown the best moment in Only Fools and Horses. The episode, "A Touch of Glass" was voted number 2, losing to when Del Boy (David Jason) falls through an open bar in "Yuppy Love".

Early life

Sullivan was from a poor working-class background,[3] and grew up in Balham, South London.[4] His Irish father, John, Sr., was a plumber and his mother, Hilda, occasionally worked as a charwoman.[5] It was in Balham where he observed the sort of market trader that would later appear in Only Fools and Horses. He failed his eleven-plus and attended Telferscot Secondary Modern School, where he had an inspirational English teacher named Jim Trowers, who sparked an interest in reading the novels of Charles Dickens and discovered his talent for writing stories.[6] Sullivan left the school at 15 with no qualifications. He did, however attend evening classes in German and English, and read Teach Yourself books after leaving school.[7] His first paid employment was as a messenger boy for Reuters, and he continued to work in a number of low-paid jobs in South London for a further 15 years.[1][8]


During this time, Sullivan continued to submit scripts to the BBC before in November 1974[9] getting a job in the BBC props department.[1] He approached television producer Dennis Main Wilson with a script about a young Marxist. This led to a pilot for Comedy Special in 1977 which, following a positive reaction, was commissioned for a full series, Citizen Smith (1977–80).[1] Citizen Smith ran for four series, after which Sullivan was asked to submit another idea. An initial idea for a comedy set in the world of football was rejected, so he proposed an alternative idea for a sit-com centring on a cockney market trader in working-class, modern-day London called Readies.[10]

Through Ray Butt, a BBC producer and director whom Sullivan had met and befriended when they were working on Citizen Smith, a draft script was shown to the Corporation's Head of Comedy, John Howard Davies. Davies commissioned Sullivan to write a full series under an alternative title Only Fools and Horses, which had also been the name of a Citizen Smith episode. Sullivan believed the key factor in it being accepted was the success of ITV's new drama Minder, a series with a similar premise and also set in modern-day London.[11]

Much of Sullivan's material for Only Fools and Horses scripts came from his real-life experiences: falling through a raised bar flap,[12] the chandelier falling, his father's poker sessions, his niece working in the police force, and his grandfather falling down holes to claim money. It is arguable that the economic insecurity experienced by the Trotter family, and their eventual rise to wealth, is based on Sullivan's own personal background, who grew up in a poor household and noted in an interview that he and his friends seemingly had no other opportunities after leaving school apart from becoming, as Sullivan put it, "factory fodder." The success of Only Fools and Horses, however, made him very rich.[13]

With the success of Only Fools and Horses, at the suggestion of his wife he decided to write a romantic comedy series featuring a strong female lead character. His source of inspiration was a letter in a magazine read to him by his wife, written by a woman who had been jilted by her fiancé on the day of her wedding.[14] Just Good Friends ran for three series and a feature-length special between 1983 and 1986. Other sitcoms included Dear John (1986–7) and Sitting Pretty (1992–3).[1]

Later in his career, he moved towards writing comedy drama series such as Over Here (1996), Roger Roger (1996) and Micawber (2001). His last work, Rock and Chips (2010), was the second spin-off of Only Fools and Horses.[1]

Awards and honours

Only Fools and Horses won the BAFTA award for best comedy series in 1986, 1989 and 1997, as well as the RTS best comedy award in 1997, best sitcom at the 1990 British Comedy Awards, and two Television and Radio Industries Club Awards for comedy programme of the year in 1984 and 1997. Sullivan won the Writers' Guild of Great Britain comedy award for the 1996 Only Fools and Horses Christmas trilogy and another from the Heritage Foundation in 2001.[15]

In the 2005 New Year Honours, Sullivan was awarded an OBE for services to drama.[16] On 2 September 2008, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at Goldsmiths, University of London.[17]

On 22 July 2012 a blue plaque was unveiled by David Jason at Teddington Studios, Middlesex, England, to celebrate Sullivan's contribution to British comedy. Nicholas Lyndhurst and John Challis also attended among other cast members.[18]


Sullivan died on 23 April 2011, at the age of 64 in a private hospital in Surrey, after having viral pneumonia for six weeks.[2] BBC Director-General Mark Thompson paid tribute, saying: "John had a unique gift for turning everyday life and characters we all know into unforgettable comedy."[2]

Gareth Gwenlan, a producer of Only Fools and Horses and a close friend of Sullivan, paid tribute to the writer: "The sudden death of John Sullivan has deprived the world of television comedy of its greatest exponent. John was a writer of immense talent and he leaves behind him an extraordinary body of work which has entertained tens of millions of viewers and will continue to do so for many decades to come."[19] Sullivan is survived by his wife Sharon, two sons Dan and Jim,[20] a daughter[21] and two grandchildren.[2]

Writing credits

Production Notes Broadcaster
Citizen Smith
  • 30 episodes (1977–1980)
The Two Ronnies
  • 13 episodes (sketch contributor, 1977–1983)
Only Fools and Horses
  • 65 episodes (1981–2003)
Just Good Friends
  • 22 episodes (1983–1986)
Dear John
  • 14 episodes (1986–1987)
Dear John USA
  • 58 episodes (1988–1992)
Sitting Pretty
  • 13 episodes (1992–1993)
Over Here
  • Television film (1996)
Roger Roger
  • Television film (1996)
Coronation Street
  • 5 episodes (1997)
Roger Roger
  • 16 episodes (1998–1999, 2003)
Heartburn Hotel
  • 12 episodes (co-written with Steve Glover, 1998–2000)
  • 4 episodes (2001–2002)
The Green Green Grass
  • 32 episodes (wrote first series only, and select later episodes, 2005–2009)
Rock & Chips
  • 3 episodes (2010–2011)

Sullivan wrote (and in two cases sang) the theme tunes for Only Fools and Horses, Just Good Friends, Dear John and The Green Green Grass.[22]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Work Category Result Reference
1989 British Academy Television Awards Only Fools and Horses Best Comedy Series (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Won
1990 British Academy Television Awards Best Comedy Series (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Nominated
1991 British Academy Television Awards Best Comedy Series (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Nominated
1991 ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards Dear John Top TV Series Won
1991 British Comedy Awards WGGB Top Comedy Writer Won
1992 British Academy Television Awards Only Fools and Horses Best Comedy (Programme or Series) (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Nominated
1997 British Academy Television Awards Best Comedy (Programme or Series) (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Won
1997 Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award TV - Situation Comedy Won


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 John Sullivan profile at BFI Screenonline
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Comedy writer John Sullivan OBE dies" BBC News, 23 April 2011
  3. The Only Fools and Horses Story, ibid.
  4. John Sullivan at Ofah
  5. The Only Fools and Horses Story by Steve Clark
  6. McCann, Graham (2011). Only Fools and Horses. The story of Britain’s favourite comedy. Canongate. p. 13. ISBN 0-85786-054-2.
  8. Sullivan's early years and first job.
  9. Only Fools and Horses: The Story of Britain's Favourite Comedy - Graham McCann
  10. Clark, Steve (1998). The Only Fools and Horses Story. BBC Books. pp. 10–11. ISBN 0-563-38445-X.
  11. Clark (1998). Only Fools and Horses Story. p. 15.
  12. BBC Radio 4, Front Row interview, 30 December 2010
  13. The Only Fools and Horses Story, ibid.
  14. BBC Guide to Comedy by Mark Lewisohn, URL accessed 4 December 2006
  15. "Awards for "Only Fools and Horses"". IMDb. Retrieved 13 September 2006.
  16. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 57509. p. 13. 31 December 2004. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  17. Honorary Fellowship at Goldsmiths, University of London
  18. The Sun, 23 July 2012
  19. "Only Fools and Horses creator dies", Yahoo News, 23 April 2011.
  21. Obituary in The Telegraph
  22. John Sullivan at the Internet Movie Database

External links

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